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Scottish Conservatives

The one unalloyed bright spot for the Conservatives of the weekend’s elections was the dramatic resurgence in Scotland, where Ruth Davidson led the party to its best result since 1992 and, with 31 MSPs, its best devolved election result ever.

Over the next five years she will not only have to shoulder the burden of holding the SNP to account for its governing of Scotland, but also bed in this Tory revival and try to take advantage of their new strength to protect the Union.

Protecting the Union means much more than simply seeing off a second referendum (or defeating the separatists again if it comes). It means the tricky double act of further expanding the Conservative vote whilst defending the British dimension in Scottish politics and resisting what some commentators are referring to as ‘Ulsterisation’.

I may return to the latter subject at a later time. As for the former: where could the Scottish Conservatives expand their representation at Holyrood?

The most obvious place is the North East, where the Tories used to be the dominant political force and where they pulled off their most unexpected constituency win of the night in West Aberdeenshire.

In East Aberdeenshire and Angus South the Tory candidate added a full 15 points to their share of the vote, whilst the SNP fell by almost 19 points in the former and ten in the latter.

In North Perthshire, held by John Swinney, the Nationalist finance minister, the Conservatives put on 12.5 points whilst the incumbent shed 12.3.

And this pattern was repeated across the area. In neighbouring South Perthshire, it was +9.9 and -9.1 respectively. In Angus North it was +11.7 and -9.1. Banffshire and Buchan Coast saw +13.8 to -12.1. In Moray, in the neighbouring Highlands, it was +18 and -11.7.

In Aberdeen South and North Kincardine (one seat) the Tory candidate put on 19.4 points, albeit this time at the expense of other unionists.

Three of these seats – Moray, Aberdeen South, and Angus North – now have majorities of under 3,000, and Perthshire South is below 1,500. To put that in perspective, capturing West Aberdeenshire this time required overturning an SNP majority of just over 4,000.

Angus South, Aberdeenshire East, and Banff and Buchan have majorities in the 5,000-6,000 range – tough nuts to crack, certainly, but until Thursday the Tories were facing electoral walls five figures high in some of them.

Also in the sub-6,000 majority range are two seats in the Borders, the other Conservative stronghold: Clydesdale, and Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale.

Round off the list with Edinburgh Pentlands, where the Tories are fewer than 2,500 behind, and Stirling, where a strong Tory advance pushed the party into second against a majority of under 7,000, and you have a list of five short-term (Edinburgh Pentlands, Moray, Aberdeen South, Perthshire South, Angus North) and seven medium-term (Angus South, Aberdeenshire East, Banffshire and Buchan Coast, Clydesdale, Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale, Stirling) Tory prospects.

For all that they misplayed the expectations game, this was still a very good SNP election. They had a wildly popular leader and have not yet had to start irritating their voters by exercising (or failing to exercise) actual power. There’s no reason to treat 2016 as anything like a Nationalist floor.

All of these seats are SNP facing, to avoid needing to make too many guesses about the future performance of other unionist parties. Further Labour decline might, of course, put more seats in play – or lift them out of reach.

This isn’t a prediction that the party will win all or any of them, of course, but a reminder that there is no reason to assume that Davidson as suddenly maxed out the potential Tory vote in Scotland. People were saying the same thing when we polled 12.5 per cent.

Edit: As pointed out in the comments, the Scottish electoral system means that some of these constituency gains would be offset by losses on the regional top-up lists. However, the vote increases needed to deliver these mean that such losses are unlikely to match gains.

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